Where do women lead in the media? South Africa.

Why We Wrote This

How can you tell the world’s story, if only half the world is telling it? For decades, women were scarce in top newsroom roles. But that’s changing, particularly in South Africa – where Black, Asian, and multiracial women’s gains were especially hard-won. Part of our special 100th anniversary edition on women winning the right to vote.

Darryl Hammond/Sowetan
Nwabisa Makunga is editor of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most circulated daily newspapers. She first became interested in journalism at age 11.

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Mahlatse Mahlase is group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major broadcaster in South Africa. It’s a role she would have been unlikely to fill 30 years ago, under the apartheid regime, whose hierarchy put Black women on a bottom tier.

But no matter where you look in the world, women’s leadership in the news media has lagged – and still does. South Africa, in fact, is a relative success story. Today, women lead nearly half of the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That puts it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

Yet South African women’s gains have been especially hard-won, and incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. 

Ms. Mahlase says she has reflected on representation through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

Nwabisa Makunga can point to the exact moment she knew she would become a journalist.

It was April 1993 and she was 11 years old, watching the TV broadcast of the funeral of assassinated anti-apartheid leader Chris Hani with her family in their living room. The presenter was a Black reporter named Noxolo Grootboom, and her powerful tribute to Mr. Hani brought Ms. Makunga’s parents to tears.

“She was a woman who looked like me, who spoke like me, telling the story of a man who had been so important to people from my community,” she recalls. “I said to myself – this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be like Noxolo, and I’m going to tell stories.”

Three decades later, Ms. Makunga is the editor-in-chief of the Sowetan, one of South Africa’s most-circulated daily newspapers. She is part of a generation of women who have risen through the ranks to take leadership of many of the country’s most important news outlets. Today, these women – most of them Black, Asian, and multiracial – lead nearly half the country’s major publications and broadcasters, according to a recent analysis by Oxford University. That makes the country a global leader for women’s leadership in the media, putting it ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even countries held up as models of gender parity, like Finland.

And the achievement is doubly remarkable in South Africa, where only a generation ago the entire country was run largely by white men. Editors like Ms. Makunga grew up not only with few role models who looked like them, but also in a world where the media was used as a weapon of the apartheid regime, premised on white supremacy – enforcing a hierarchy in which they were the bottom tier.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/File
A vendor sells a Daily Sun edition honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela’s birthday on July 18, 2013. The country’s transition to democracy opened up opportunities for many of today’s journalists.

Hard-won gains

Even after apartheid formally ended, these editors came up in newsrooms where its effects lingered. They were told their accents were “too African,” or their looks “too tempting.” Even as the newsrooms around them began to change from mostly white to mostly not, they still found themselves edged out of the pub trips and golf games where their male colleagues networked their way to the top.

“Make no mistake: Those statistics changing are the result of a fight,” says Mahlatse Mahlase, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, a major breaking-news broadcaster. Women in South Africa’s newsrooms “have fought racism and they’ve also fought the patriarchy. The discrimination came from every side.”

Although they’ve now arrived, many of these same leaders note that South Africa’s media transformation remains incomplete. Women hold few of journalism’s purse strings, for instance. Just 19% of the board members at media companies here are female, according to a 2018 academic study of women in the media called “Glass Ceilings.” The vast majority of the country’s major media houses have a male CEO.

And while the proportion of Black, Asian, and multiracial women in the top echelons of South African media companies has grown from 6% in 2006 to 30% in 2018, that number still lags, in a country where they represent 46% of the population, according to the Glass Ceilings survey. Once they get there, meanwhile, they’re often placed under intense scrutiny and pressure.

“When men get to the top of their profession, they’re celebrated. When women get there, particularly Black women, there’s backlash, there’s trolling, there’s bullying,” says Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the co-author of the Glass Ceilings study. She uses the term “Black” as it is frequently applied in South Africa, to describe anyone who is not white. “Women at the top find they’re often exhausted just proving over and over that they deserve to be in the room.”

Courtesy of Mapula Nkosi
“Newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history.” – Mapula Nkosi, editor of the Daily Sun

Coming up the ladder

In 1994, the same year Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first Black president, an ambitious young reporter named Mapula Nkosi walked into the Johannesburg newsroom of the Weekly Mail, which made its name opposing apartheid, to begin her career as a cadet reporter.

When she looked up the ranks, she says, she saw only men. But all around her, the country had a new buzzword: transformation. The process was often fuzzy, but the objective was clear: The structures that ruled the country should look more like the people who lived in it.

“Those newsrooms figured out they needed to mimic what was happening in society so they wouldn’t end up on the wrong side of history,” says Ms. Nkosi, now the editor of the Daily Sun, the country’s most-circulated daily newspaper. “The whole time I was coming up I had people on one side of me saying, ‘We don’t understand why you’re in this position,’ and people on the other side saying, ‘We are so excited to see where you go.’”

Those competing forces followed many of South Africa’s women journalists through their rise. Each time they pulled themselves up another rung on the ladder, they heard whispers – that they only got this job because leadership wanted a woman, that they’d never make it.

But when they did, the conversation changed.

“When you do well, you become almost genderless,” says Paula Fray, a media consultant and the first woman to edit the Saturday Star, a major South African newspaper. “But if you don’t do well, then your failings represent your whole gender.”

Meanwhile, women leaders in the newsroom “carry the added responsibility of making these environments more welcoming for women,” says Mary Papayya, a veteran journalist and editor who now sits on the board of the South African Broadcasting Corp. That, she notes, is a particularly difficult task at a time when many outlets have seen their budgets slashed and are now contending with a pandemic that has made news reporting both more dangerous and less lucrative.

And the fight for change goes beyond who sits in the corner office. In South Africa, like many countries, men are disproportionately both the experts and subjects of news stories. A recent analysis of the South African media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the organization Media Monitoring Africa, for instance, found that 80% of those quoted in stories about the virus were men.

Ms. Mahlase, the radio news editor, says she sees these kinds of statistics through a new prism since she gave birth seven months ago to her first child, a boy. 

“I want my son to grow up in a world where he has female bosses,” she says. “I want him to grow up listening to women experts on the radio, hearing them as contributors to changing the world and not just as victims of an unfair system.”

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